How to Handle Controversy in the Classroom


  • Include in your syllabus a statement regarding the need for respectful and conscientious dialogue in class.
  • On the first day of class, discuss any potential topics that may cause strong feelings or emotions, and discuss the pedagogical value of discussing these issues while supporting the need for respectful debate.
  • Address inappropriate comments in a way that encourages respect and thoughtful debate among students. Remember: silence may indicate that you condone what was said.
  • Make the comment(s) a teachable moment for the class.
  • After class, talk with the students involved in the verbal exchange.
  • Keep in mind issues of free speech and how these relate to discussions in class. Note: While Federal civil rights laws are intended to protect students from discrimination, these laws are not meant to regulate the content of speech. The Office for Civil Rights is sensitive to First Amendment concerns that may arise in the course of addressing racial harassment complaints and takes special care to avoid actions that would impair the First Amendment rights of an institution’s students and employees.
  • Be aware of your own behavior and language when teaching class; you are a role model for your students and they learn by not only what you teach but also the behavior and actions you exhibit.

Consider the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech

When regulating the conduct of students and teachers to prevent or address discrimination, a school must formulate, interpret, and apply its rules so as to protect constitutional rights. In cases of alleged harassment, the protections of the First Amendment must be considered if issues of speech or expression are involved. Federal civil rights laws are intended to protect students from discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech.

Whether or not speech or expression that is alleged to constitute harassment is protected by the First Amendment will generally depend upon the facts and context involved, including the type and timing of the speech, the nature of the forum in which the speech takes place, and the educational level and age of the students involved. Most First Amendment questions do not have stock solutions. Resolving situations in which First Amendment questions arise requires careful weighing of all of the factual and legal considerations. OCR’s Sexual Harassment Guidance, in particular, contains an analysis of the interplay of the protections of the First Amendment and the federal prohibition of harassment.

Schools should consult legal counsel if First Amendment concerns arise in the course of implementing the district’s policy. To avoid potential conflicts with the First Amendment, make sure that training of administrators and staff includes First Amendment issues, that administrators and teachers know whom to consult about such issues, and that the district’s regular student disciplinary policies are consistently enforced. Good training programs to sensitize students and staff to the harmful effects of thoughtless behavior will avoid many problems. A district’s anti-harassment policy may contain a reminder to administrators and staff to apply the policy in a manner that complies with the First Amendment.

Source: Protecting Students from Harassment and Hate Crime: A Guide for Schools; January 1999; Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Compiled by:

Dr. Rhonda Sutton
North Carolina State University